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Georgia Fighting Sparks Major Humanitarian Crisis

  • Claire Bigg

A Georgian woman cries as she and her family flee the central Georgian city of Gori on August 13.

One week ago, Luisa Dzagoeva was trimming hair in a salon in Tskhinvali, the capital of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia. Now she has lost everything -- her home, her job, and hopes for a stable, peaceful life.

The fierce battle between Russian and Georgian forces over the province has killed numerous civilians and reduced much of Dzagoeva's city to smoldering rubble, including her house and the beauty parlor where she was employed.

Luisa and her mother managed to flee to neighboring North Ossetia, in Russia, after hiding in a cellar for four days.

"We came here in a truck transporting potatoes," she said. "We all sat on the floor. There was one wounded person with us, and we were asked to pick up another person with injuries along the way. Before that, we spent four days in a cellar with no gas or electricity. All the cables had been ripped out and were lying on the ground."

Her mother, a diabetic, is now receiving intensive care in one of the field hospitals set up in and around the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz. Luisa herself was treated for light shrapnel wounds.

Russian authorities say more than 30,000 South Ossetians have fled their homes since fighting started on the night of August 7-8.

Most of them, like Luisa, try to reach North Ossetia. But as Russian journalist Ilya Barabanov tells RFE/RL's Russian Service from a village in South Ossetia, not all are able -- or even fit enough -- to reach the Russian border.

"The situation is truly catastrophic here. There are several hundred refugees in this village. Efforts are made to somehow transfer them to Vladikavkaz, but huge traffic jams block the roads," Barabanov says. "People are trying to leave in cars and new wounded people keep pouring into the village. An aid post has been set up outside. Surgery takes place in the open air."

Supplies Growing Scarce

The fighting has also forced scores of Georgians out of their homes.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says 80 percent of the population of Gori, a Georgian city just south of the de facto border with South Ossetia, have fled in fear of further attacks.

Goga Aptsiauri, RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent in Gori, says as few as 5,000 residents currently remain in the city of 50,000, and that food and other supplies are growing scarce.

The UN says 80 percent of the residents of Gori have left to escape further attacks.
Aptsiauri, who reported hearing gunshots during the day on August 13, added that remaining residents are facing an additional risk in the form of looting and criminal gangs.

"Yesterday, at dusk, villages located northwest and northeast from Gori, toward the direction of Tskhinvali, became a looting scene for various groupings and formations," Aptsiauri says. "People were calling governmental agencies, the media, asking for help. The looters took everything -- money, groceries, cattle, chicken. Everything."

Many residents of Gori and its environs have taken refuge with relatives living in safer cities. The less fortunate crowd outside the mayor's office in Tbilisi to obtain the status of internally displaced persons. Once registered, they receive food and shelter at makeshift dormitories in and around the Georgian capital.

"I have a two-story house back home," said one old man who had come to Tbilisi after abandoning his home in the conflict zone. "It was not completely finished yet, but every I spent every single penny I had collected to built this house. Now I am homeless. I don't know what's going to happen, and what the government will do for poor people. I hope they will think about us."

Families Torn Apart

The fighting has also broken up countless families on both sides of the conflict.

Royal Garibov is 10 years old and likes playing war, but only on computer games.

The conflict raging in Georgia has separated him from his parents -- ethnic Azeris -- and driven him from his home in the Georgian village of Gara Tahla after an air strike destroyed the nearby air base, sending a rain of shrapnel over the village.

A woman from the city of Gori breaks down in tears while fleeing her home.
Royal and his younger brother are now staying with their aunt in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku.

"I'm on the Georgian side," Royal says. "I heard shots from jet fighters flying over our village. My mom is in Georgia. She stayed with my dad. I asked her to come, but she said she was staying because my dad is in the war. He's fighting."

In total, the UN says the conflict has displaced some 90,000 people, including 12,000 within South Ossetia -- an estimate based on official data from Russian and Georgian officials.

But Tatyana Lokshina, the deputy head of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, urges great caution on the reported figures.

"We are deep in the realm of disinformation, which comes from both sides of the conflict, and of propaganda from the media," Lokshina says. "The figures they give for the dead, the injured, about the civilian population and the displaced people are absolutely groundless."

'Very, Very Serious'

Aid organizations have so far been unable to verify these numbers or even evaluate the severity of the humanitarian crisis in South Ossetia, which remains extremely volatile and almost impossible to access.

"Our teams have been trying since Friday [August 8] to get to South Ossetia from Tbilisi, but it's been very difficult to get there for security reasons," says Anna Schaaf, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. "So we don't have any firsthand information yet on what the actual humanitarian situation is on the ground. But from what we're hearing it sounds very, very serious, and we are very much worried for the population."

For civilians trapped in Tskhinvali, Russian and Georgian acceptance of an EU-backed peace plan early on August 13 had seemed to be the best hope for a prompt rescue.

Among other things, the plan demands that both sides allow free access for humanitarian assistance. Reported Russian troop movements, however, may once again put humanitarian concerns on the back burner.

RFE/RL's Russian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani services contributed to this report
Video
Rally In Tbilisi

Leaders from Georgia, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania speak to thousands in the Georgia capital on August 12 (Reuters video). Play

For RFE/RL's full coverage of the clashes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia proper, click here.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


     

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